The banking and energy crises have eclipsed what can fairly be called the education crisis, as a presidential-election issue. This is surprising, given that, according to a recent poll by the Associated Press, 79 percent of voters say that education falls behind only the economy (88 percent), gas prices (81 percent), and health care (81 percent) in importance, and is on par with the war in Iraq.
The limited discussion of the candidates' education policies so far has focused on John McCain's backing and Barack Obama's criticism of school choice, a largely intra-state matter. Mr. McCain has a more interesting and relevant proposal to improve public schools: expand the supply of teachers through federal support of alternative certification programs, which holds out hope of not only expanding the supply of potential teachers, but improving their quality as well.
A growing body of research consistently finds that teacher quality is the single most important determinant of a child's level of academic achievement, excluding factors beyond the classroom such as socio-economic status. However, teacher quality varies dramatically across school systems and even within particular schools. According to several studies, a child assigned to a teacher in the upper quartile of all teachers in his school will end up a year ahead of an equivalent student taught by a teacher in the lowest quartile. In short, there is no more effective way of improving learning than by bringing the performance of teachers in the lower quartiles closer to the performance of teachers in the top quartile.
The current system attempts to ensure teacher quality by requiring teachers to earn certification from a teachers' college and encouraging them to earn advanced degrees there. Unfortunately, there is ample evidence that what teachers learn in education schools does not make them more effective in the classroom. Research consistently finds that teachers with advanced degrees perform no better than those without them, and that few if any benefits come from earning certification. Skepticism toward the value of training in education colleges can be found even within their ranks. In his study of teacher colleges across the country, Arthur Levine, former president of Columbia University's Teachers College, concluded that most of them had "inadequate" curriculums and low standards.
Research provides us with few if any tools to identify successful teachers before they enter the classroom. In fact, it is difficult to identify qualities in teachers, once they have entered the classroom, which explain the large variations in academic outcomes that exist. For instance, the University of Washington's Dan Goldhaber and his colleagues found that length of experience and number of degrees earned, the two factors that determine a teacher's salary, explain only about 3 percent of the variation in a teacher's effect on student achievement.
The lesson of this research is that variation in the performance of teachers appears to be the result of innate characteristics that are unaffected by training. Some teachers are good, some are bad. We can identify the successful teachers after they have been in the classroom for some time, but not before.
This empirical reality points us toward a very different system from the one we have today. Instead of focusing on preparing teachers for their first day of class, we should be expanding the labor pool and then working to identify and retain those teachers who turn out to be successful. Mr. McCain's promise to expand alternative teacher-certification programs would help usher in such a system.
Though his plan lacks detail, Mr. McCain has stated on numerous occasions that he would expand the supply of teachers by opening the profession to those who did not graduate from an education school. The big idea here is that if teaching effectiveness is unrelated to training, then education school, and the teaching license it provides, should not be a prerequisite to a career in teaching. In fact, the current certification system is probably keeping out many college graduates who have the potential to be talented teachers.
Evidence from existing alternative-certification programs, which invariably involve some combination of training and supervised practice, has been relatively positive. For example, studies by Mathematica and the Urban Institute have found that teachers participating in the Teach for America program, which recruits graduates of prestigious colleges and universities to teach in struggling schools, are better at raising student scores than graduates of teachers' colleges. It remains to be seen whether expansion of alternative-certification programs beyond a small group of elite schools will find large numbers of promising, motivated candidates, but their success thus far is impressive enough to warrant it.
There does appear to be a pent-up supply of talented people who want to give teaching a try. For example, about 12 percent of Yale's 2005 graduating class applied for the Teach for America Program. In the 2006-07 school year, about 10 percent of public school teachers in New York City were participants in the NYC Teaching Fellows program, which similarly opens the door to talented people who did not go to a teachers' college. These and other programs have many more attractive applicants than they do classroom openings.
What if alternative certification lets in some bad teachers? This is certainly a worry. However, as we can see from the large variation in teacher quality that already exists, conventional teacher-training provides only false assurances of effectiveness. And the price of those assurances is the exclusion of potentially great educators who are unwilling to waste four precious years in ed school.
To be certain, Mr. McCain's promise to increase alternative certification has yet to be developed into a practicable plan. And the replacement of demonstrably poor teachers by potentially better ones is bound to be slowed by aspects of the current education scene, such as tenure, that are imbedded in local teacher contracts and thus fall outside the reach of the federal government. Despite such obstacles, alternative certification, given the huge promise it has to transform our entire system of public education, is the kind of proposal that deserves some discussion in this presidential campaign.
Marcus Winters is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.